Reflections on Bukit Mertajam, and Political Lessons for Malaysia

loading Chan Kit Yeng

The story of the valiant Sisyphus is one of my favourites in Greek mythology. He cheated gods and death, and thus angered Zeus himself. Because of this, Sisyphus was punished by Zeus to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again, and he has to keep doing this for eternity.

The fate of Sisyphus has come to symbolise the absurdity and meaninglessness of life, in particular through the work of French thinker Albert Camus.

In a strange way, the story of Sisyphus often reminds me of another story that is no less legendary – that of the founding of Bukit Mertajam, my hometown.

It is said that about 200 years ago, the industrious Huizhou (惠州) Hakkas arrived on the northern side of the hilly lands around Bukit Mertajam. They cultivated spices such as cloves, nutmeg, pepper and other fruits in line with the British Prince of Wales administration’s policy of raising revenue “from the land and not from trade”.

Every day, the hardworking farmers carried their produce from the hills to a simple marketplace at the foot of Bukit Mertajam. However, because the site was a deep crater and not suitable for a market, the farmers carried with them baskets of stones from the hills to fill the crater as they travelled each day by foot to bring their produce to the place. Eventually, after many years of labour, the crater was eventually filled up and flattened. In 1885, and according to official inscription records, in the 11th year of Guangxu, funds were solicited to build a temple on the site. This is the Fu De Zheng Shen (福德正神) Temple, which stands on Jalan Pasar today.

The Sisyphean task undertaken by the first dwellers of Bukit Mertajam demonstrates the determination and resilience through mutual cooperation shown by our forefathers – qualities which are evident in the generations that followed them.

Growing up in Bukit Mertajam has always been a blessing to me. This was where I spent my childhood, where I went to school, where I met my wife and where we built our family together. Although a small town, we were always inspired to dream big in this place. After all, our pioneers imagined building this prosperous township from scratch – from literally a hole in the ground!

Bukit Mertajam taught me a lot of things, and here I want to share five lessons from Bukit Mertajam which are relevant to Malaysian politics:

Lesson 1: We do not have to choose between ethnicity and national

One very outstanding feature of Bukit Mertajam is the richness of our culture.

There are notably numerous temples and Chinese she tuan (社团, “association”) in Bukit Mertajam. The key among these are the Fu De Zheng Shen Temple (Persatuan Hock Teik Ching Sin) and the five native place associations (五大乡团, wu da xiang tuan), namely the Hakka, Hainan, Teochew, Hokkien and Kwang Tung.

One fact that shows how cultural identity is important for Bukit Mertajam folks is this: we have the largest Phor Tor Hungry Ghost Festival celebration in Penang (and most probably in the world) on the seventh lunar month each year. As a first-year member of parliament, I had to attend about 50 community Phor Tor dinners in 2013 – all in just under a month.

We take our culture and tradition seriously.

As such, it does not make sense for us to be asked: are you a Malaysian first or a Chinese or Malay or Muslim or Christian first?

It is like asking if our left hand is more important than the right. It doesn't make sense – for me at least – to have to choose which part of my body defines me the most. The fact is, each part comes together to constitute the whole.

It should not have been a choice in the first place. When we formed Malaysia, we were creating a nation where it is “OK” to be a Chinese or Malay and yet at the same time commit to being a citizen of Malaysia. This is the unique characteristic of the rainbow nation we have established together. Indeed Malaysia is unique among the countries in the world. Most of the races in the country preserved their distinctive ethnic cultures and practices without overt assimilation – unlike, for example, neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

It wasn't easy – there was no precedence. But this was the path our founding fathers had chosen. Therefore, it really does not make sense for us now to be forced to choose one identity over another when our nation was originally programmed to accommodate, no, to consist of people with multidimensional identities.

Lesson 2: No one should be asked to “Balik China”; we are all an integral part of this country

There are five native-place associations in Bukit Mertajam, i.e.:

1)Province Wellesley Hakka Association 威省客家公会(Est. 1964, 54 years old)

2)Seberang Perai Hainan Association 威省 海南会馆 (Est. 1941, 77 years old)

3)Hung Kung Association Bukit Mertajam 大山脚韩江公会 (Est. 1928, 90 years old)

4)Hokkien Hoay Kuan Province Wellesley 威省福建会馆 (Est. 1926, 92 years old)

5)Kwong Waai Siew Association 威省广惠 肇会馆 (Est. 1895, 123 years old)

All but one of them preceded our country’s Merdeka. The oldest association was established 62 years before Independence and will be celebrating its 123rd anniversary this year. Hokkien Hoay Kuan, of which I am member, was established 31 years before Independence and will turn 92 years old this year.

After more than a century living together, it is absurd to ask any Malaysian to “Balik China” or “Balik India”, and for that matter, it is absurd to ask some Malays to “Balik Indonesia”.

The roots for many Malaysians – Malay, Chinese, Indian and others – are in fact deeper and go beyond the ages of these Bukit Mertajam associations.

It was not as if the Malays were sitting on their verandahs and suddenly the British brought in the “foreign races” – Chinese and Indians – giving the natives the shock of their lives.

No, the ancient kingdoms along the Malay Peninsula had been visited by adventurer traders, emissaries, monks and scholars. In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese chronicler Tomé Pires estimated that “no less than eighty-four distinct languages could be heard in the streets of Malacca… [and] the number of foreign merchants in the city in 1509 to be about 4,000 of whom 1,000 were Gujaratis.” Hang Tuah himself, in the Hikayat, said that the Malays in Melaka were “kacukan” (“of mixed race”).

Intermarriages which produced new ethnic communities such as the Baba Nyonya (Chinese-Malay) and the Jawi Peranakan (Indian-Malay) are at least evidence that firstly, interactions between races in the Malay Peninsula run deep back into history, and secondly, while there were barriers to inter-racial relation, they were not impenetrable.

We have been living together for a long, long time now. And this living together will probably not change in the near future, so let’s make it work.

Lesson 3: Politics is important, but politicians aren’t

One year during Chinese New Year, I attended a prayer ceremony at the Fu De Zheng Shen Temple. The ceremony was led by leaders of the Fu De Zheng Shen Management Committee. Its committee members were in turn selected from leaders of the native-place associations.

Representatives of political parties were there too – DAP, PKR, MCA, Gerakan, etc.

But my feeling at that moment was, the politicians were not the main stars, as we are used to thinking of them at most public events. No, it was the community leaders who led the ceremony.

No wonder, the Fu De Zheng Shen Temple is said to “belong to the mass of Bukit Mertajam Chinese and has a long history of achievement.”

Do not get me wrong, the people of Bukit Mertajam are keenly aware of politics and take active part in the political process. Of course we do – politics and how the country is governed affect our lives. In fact, political issues and government policy are often highlighted in speeches of local community leaders during she tuan dinners and other social events. Community leaders also frequently comment on political issues in the media to express the views of Bukit Mertajam’s civil society. Their statements often carry a lot of weight because of their non-partisan position.

The foothills of Bukit Mertajam.

But we also realise that our lives do not depend on politicians, or even the government. We are not beholden to the powers that be. In fact, it should be the other way around.

Which is why Bukit Mertajam was never cowed into supporting the powers that be. Observing in 1978, Nonini saw how “state-provided services were employed as a whip to enforce political discipline... This took the form of national and state government officials systematically penalizing the residents of the New Villages and town kampungs who had voted for the opposition by denying post-electoral municipal services”. This had not stopped the Bukit Mertajam electorate to go on to elect an opposition member of parliament from 1978 until 1995, and then again from 1999 onwards.

Lesson 4: We must depend on ourselves (not the government) and we must help each other

The corollary to Lesson 3 is bad news to politicians. Despite being a democracy, where the people is boss, we have come to treat our politicians like bosses instead, from giving them priority seats in social functions to bending to their whims and fancies.

We are all familiar with how the government uses its power to demand submission, from the denial of municipal services as previously pointed out, to the dangling of government funds before associations and even schools in exchange for obedience and loyalty.

The people of Bukit Mertajam will have none of that.

Democracy is supposed to empower the people, not politicians.

In 2016 Bukit Mertajam became an experimental ground for participatory budgeting, where over 3,000 people voted on how their local development fund should be utilised. As a result, a new village, Kampung Permatang Tinggi, managed to secure funds for the installation of CCTVs as well as improving village infrastructure.

Recently, when the residents of Taman Tan Sai Gin wanted to build a roof over their outdoor basketball court, the Rukun Tetangga immediately set up a committee to raise funds for it. They managed to raise RM100,000. Although the Rukun Tetangga is under the authority of the federal government, the state government agreed to contribute a second RM100,000 to the project. So instead of being fully reliant on the government, the neighbourhood partners with the government to get things done.

Compound of Bukit Mertajam High School.

Such community programmes cannot be possible without mutual cooperation. Public benevolence is a trademark of Bukit Mertajam society. One does not only care for one’s own self or family, but also for others in need. Most of the she tuan in Bukit Mertajam are involved in some kind of charitable work. One popular saying among the people of Bukit Mertajam is, 取之社會,用之社會 (Qu zhi she hui, yong zhi she hui), meaning, “gain from the community, give back to the community”. It was in this philanthropic spirit that during the November 5 floods, many local charitable organisations, such as One Hope Charity, and local volunteers’ groups, such as the voluntary fire brigades, all worked day and night to assist flood victims.

Lesson 5: Education is pivotal

Education is very important to Bukit Mertajam. In 1889, within three years after the completion of Fu De Zheng Shen Temple, the temple committee built a classroom to organise a free school in order to “nurture talents who can transform a vulgar culture into a culture which upholds politeness and righteousness”. By 1895 the establishment of the free school, called the Da Shan Jiao Yi Xue Tang (大山脚义 学堂), was literally set in stone: a stone inscription was erected in the temple ground to mark the decision to organise the Da Shan Jiao Yi Xue Tang with two teachers whose salaries would be paid for by the temple.

This school became the foundation of what is today the famous Jit Sin school.

By the early twentieth century, “vernacular schools like Malay, Chinese and Anglo- Chinese schools were widely found in Bukit Mertajam”. (Chan & Koay, 2016)

One of the earliest Malay schools in Bukit Mertajam is Sekolah Kebangsaan Machang Bubok, set up in 1912, according to oral history.

My alma mater, Bukit Mertajam High School, was established in 1927, the first government school in Seberang Perai at that time.

Every year, the Fu De Zheng Shen Temple Committee will donate about RM1,000,000 towards Jit Sin schools (two primary schools, a national secondary school and an independent school), and other schools in Bukit Mertajam as well as for the provision of student grants.

Almost all the Phor Tor dinners (that is, at least 50 in 2013) will raise funds for one school or another in Bukit Mertajam.

Each of the five native-place associations, the many surname and clan associations, and trade associations (e.g. lorry drivers, hawkers, etc) will also have their respective bursary and other education grant programmes.

Education is highly valued in Bukit Mertajam. The pioneers and subsequent generations knew deep in their hearts that it is only through education that we can inculcate good behaviour and good values.

Education is highly valued in Bukit Mertajam. The pioneers and subsequent generations knew deep in their hearts that it is only through education that we can inculcate good behaviour and good values on top of nurturing talents. Perhaps it is not an accident after all that the first chief minister of Penang, Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee, was a native Bukit Mertajam boy and a teacher here. One of our most scholarly education ministers, one-time deputy prime minister and now Opposition icon, Anwar Ibrahim, is also from Bukit Mertajam.

As we arrive at an important juncture in our country’s history, with perhaps the most important general election since Merdeka now just weeks away, we must remain committed to providing the best education for our next generation. Malaysia has fallen badly in educational standards as evidenced by our performance in international assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Corruption and bad governance affect not just “economics”, but really, they affect all sorts of institutions in this country – and not least education. The sad thing is, this is a vicious circle: bad governance leads to bad education, and bad education leads to bad governance.

Hence, real change in the long run is not just a change of political regime, but rather the reform of institutions, including our education system. Then, perhaps, we will achieve the dreams of the founders of Bukit Mertajam: “to nurture talents who can transform a vulgar culture into a culture which upholds politeness and righteousness”.

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam and a member of Penang Institute’s Board of Directors.



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